Surrey University

Job insecurity upsetting collegiate life


Nearly 92 per cent of voters in a Surrey University College Union (UCU) indicative survey supported holding a vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor, with a further 96 per in favour of a vote for the executive board. 

Surrey UCU has been campaigning against ‘compulsory’ redundancies and financial severance elicited by the University of Surrey in an all-staff emergency meeting on March 6. Vice Chancellor Professor Max Lu (VC) announced the university would have to cut staff and assets as part of cost-saving exercises. 

A UCU open letter dated April 11 alleged the university was trying to turn a “£10m deficit” into a “£10m surplus”. A spokesperson claimed staff feel they have been “coerced” into redundancy, or “feeling that their hand has been forced”.

An academic, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It’s extremely distracting and upsetting […] Commitment to the university falls and commitment to your work falls. You invest a lot of time into your institution and when your institution doesn’t value you back, you question why.”

Speaking about her department, she said: “It’s horrible. Morale is very low” and people feel “very insecure about their jobs”. 

High inflation, soaring energy bills and overall cost of living pressures were cited by the VC as reasons why the university needed to reduce its expenditure. Sector-wide problems within Higher Education such as “devaluing domestic tuition fees” and declining numbers of international students “due to external factors” were also highlighted in a letter by the VC

However, the UCU argued that poor financial management in “historical borrowing and significant spending on multi-million-pound projects” undermined the VC’s claim. Recent developments include the Surrey Institute for People-Centred AI (opened in 2021) and launching a new medical school with an intake for 2024.

Over 90 per cent of the university’s income was borrowed externally, coming second in the UK in 2021/22. Gross debt increased by £16.6m in 2022/23 to £296.5m compared to 2021/22, as the University entered into a new £20m term loan used to support the purchase of a building on campus, this was partially offset as a result of scheduled repayments. 

Soaring from 0.1 per cent interest rates in December 2021, to 5.25 in 2023,  the university now has to pay back around 4.5 per cent interest in its loans (2024).

“It’s a reckless […] way of living,” the academic said,  “to borrow, borrow, borrow with the hope that you will make that money back.” 

Rather than trying to “play with the big boys” and be a Russell Group university or UCL, the academic said, “Surrey needs to play to its strengths” as a small, safe university in Guildford which looks after its students. 

Fewer Surrey UCU members voted to start formal industrial action (75.3%) than those in favour of a no confidence motion. Academic staff explained striking would mean taking teaching away from university students, who were not at fault. 

The union is meeting on April 22 to discuss the next steps and has invited MP Angela Ricardson and parliamentary candidates to attend. 

A spokesperson from the University of Surrey said: ”Our University is not immune to the unprecedented financial pressures facing the UK’s higher education sector – including high inflation, high energy costs, the sustained devaluation of tuition fees and the recent decline in international student numbers. We’re taking a focused and nuanced approach to tackling these sector-wide challenges at Surrey, with our approach designed to minimise the impact on our people and our core mission. We are looking at a variety of measures to increase income and save on costs including offering voluntary severance to some colleagues. We are hoping to avoid compulsory redundancies.”

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